Imprisoned 31 years, man to go free after doubts emerge in Tampa robbery

Prosecutors say they can no longer stand behind the conviction and life sentence of Tony Hopps in a 1990 robbery case.
Tony Hopps appears a recent photo from the Florida Department of Corrections.
Tony Hopps appears a recent photo from the Florida Department of Corrections. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Aug. 23, 2021|Updated Aug. 23, 2021

TAMPA — A man who has spent three decades in prison for a 1990 robbery will go free after Tampa prosecutors concluded they can no longer stand behind his conviction.

Tony G. Hopps, 56, has been incarcerated 31 years for an armed theft at the Tahitian Inn in South Tampa.

Related: People wrongfully convicted can now petition Hillsborough state attorney for review

Hopps’ conviction and life sentence were based largely on a photo array the victims viewed in identifying him as the person who robbed them. But a recent investigation by the Hillsborough State Attorney’s conviction review unit found problems with the way the photos were assembled and shown. The unit also found new witnesses to corroborate Hopps’ alibi.

“There is no valid evidence to suggest Hopps committed the crime and there is substantial evidence to suggest he did not do it,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Innocence Project of Florida shepherded Hopps’ case in court this month.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lyann Goudie issued a written order Monday declaring that the new evidence would probably produce an acquittal in a new trial. She overturned his conviction and sentence.

Hopps was expected to walk out of Hardee Correctional Institution sometime late Monday.

He plans to stay with his sister-in-law in Tampa, said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. Miller commended Warren’s office.

A news release announcing Hopps’ exoneration included the conviction review unit’s detailed summary of the case and the subsequent investigation.

Related: In Tampa, conviction review petitions tell tales of innocence and injustice

The crime happened about 3:15 p.m. Jan. 25, 1990. The victims, Ruby and Dunbar Dyches, were staying in room 137 at the Tahitian Inn, a well-known motel on South Dale Mabry Highway.

The couple had just returned from shopping when someone knocked on their room door. Dunbar Dyches opened it and was confronted by a man with a gun, who demanded money. The couple would later describe him as a Black man, with a mustache and a muscular build dressed in camouflage pants and a cap.

As Dunbar Dyches stepped outside, another man hit him. The gunman entered the room, demanded money from Ruby Dyches, then grabbed her blue handbag and fled.

Witnesses at the motel pool saw the two robbers running away. The pair got into a maroon car. A witness got a partial license tag number. The car, which had been stolen, was later found abandoned about a mile from the motel.

At 3:49 p.m., two Tampa police officers detained Hopps near his home at 505 E. Francis Ave., just north of downtown Tampa. They were investigating him in an unrelated robbery. He was released, but was arrested later that night in the Tahitian Inn theft.

The next day, police pursued and stopped another stolen car. Inside, they found some of Ruby Dyches’ belongings, along with guns and ski masks. Another man was seen running near the stolen car.

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Police later mailed a photo array of possible suspects to the Dyches home in Georgia. It included an image of Hopps. It also included images of two other men the police considered possible suspects. The couple identified Hopps as the gunman.

Hopps denied being involved in the robbery.

In court, his defense attorney presented alibi witnesses, including the two officers who’d detained him in the unrelated robbery case. But the officers were unable to testify as to the date and time they’d stopped him.

One of his neighbors also recalled seeing Hopps near his home 10 minutes after the Tahitian Inn robbery while she was waiting for her child to return from school. The neighbor remembered seeing two police officers arrive to speak with Hopps.

Hopps had a number of prior convictions. Records show he’d been to prison six times for crimes that included aggravated assault and burglary.

Hopps was found guilty of robbery and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal.

In May 2020, he submitted a petition to the conviction review unit. Warren established the unit in his office in 2018 with the stated goal of rooting out wrongful convictions in Hillsborough County.

Assistant State Attorney Teresa Hall conducted a lengthy investigation. She identified several problems with the way the photo array was administered.

It should not have been mailed to the victims. It was also problematic to have multiple suspects included in the same photo package. The couple was also able to discuss with each other their selection of Hopps’ image.

If the photo array was presented as evidence in court today, it would likely be suppressed, the summary states.

Hall also noted that Hopps was skinny and did not appear muscular.

The couple also described the gunman as having a mustache, but specifically said he did not have a beard. Hopps had a beard.

Hopps’ sister-in-law recalled in a recent interview that she saw him that day with a neighbor at a school bus stop. The bus delivered the neighbor’s child every day between 3 p.m. and 3:25 p.m.

Hall determined that there wasn’t enough time for Hopps to commit the Tahitian Inn robbery then make it home by the time the two officers detained him there. He was wearing shorts and no shirt when they spoke with him, not the clothing witnesses described the gunman as wearing. He was already in jail the next day when police stopped the stolen car that held Ruby Dyches’ belongings.

Both Dunbar and Ruby Dyches have since died. The State Attorney’s Office said it was unable to locate the couple’s next of kin.

After the conclusion of the state attorney’s investigation, an independent review panel examined the findings and agreed the conviction should not stand.

Hopps is the 21st case in which the State Attorney’s Office has recommended a conviction be overturned. It is the second time the unit has helped overturn a life sentence.

Their most prominent case came last year when new DNA testing led to the exoneration of Robert Duboise in a 1983 murder case.